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Alston confronts legal woes on two fronts

ANNAPOLIS — On Thursday morning, a tearful Del. Tiffany T. Alston urged Maryland’s top court not to suspend her law license for “mistakes” she made in missing a client’s court date, breaking an agreement with the Attorney Grievance Commission and failing to respond to the AGC’s chief prosecutor’s request for information.

Within an hour after her Court of Appeals hearing, a stone-faced Alston was about a mile away aiding her criminal defense attorneys — J. Wyndal Gordon and Raouf M. Abdullah — as they fought charges from the Maryland state prosecutor that she had illegally put an employee at her law firm on the state payroll by classifying her as a legislative aide.

The worker, Rayshawn Ford, was paid $800 by the state in January 2011, the month Alston, D-Prince George’s, was sworn in as a delegate, Maryland State Prosecutor Emmet C. Davitt had told the jury at the trial in Anne Arundel County Circuit Court.

Alston faces up to 18 months in prison and a $500 fine if convicted of the misdemeanor theft charge and an additional sentence if she is also found guilty of the related charge of misconduct in office.

Bar Counsel Glenn M. Grossman, the AGC’s chief prosecutor of ethics violations by lawyers, is urging the Court of Appeals to suspend Alston’s law license indefinitely for her alleged ethical offenses.

At the morning ethics hearing, Alston choked up as she told the high court that the requested sanction of indefinite suspension is “overly harsh” and generally reserved for attorneys who steal from their clients. Alston said her ethical lapses were never “malicious, intentional or deceitful.”

She acknowledged having failed to respond to bar counsel requests and court filings, saying she was unfamiliar with the AGC’s procedures.

“I agree I was not responsive in this case, but I am here today,” she told the judges.

In the case, a trial judge assigned by the Court of Appeals concluded Alston violated Maryland’s Lawyer’s Rules of Professional Conduct by failing to diligently represent a client, Walesia Robinson, and keep her informed of her case’s status. Alston also failed to promptly give Robinson’s new attorney papers related to the case after the client fired her, stated the hearing judge, Prince George’s County Circuit Court Judge Albert W. Northrop, in his Dec. 17 findings.

Deputy Bar Counsel Raymond A. Hein told the high court the ethics charges would not have been brought but for Alston’s failure to comply with a Conditional Diversion Agreement with his office requiring her to repay $5,000 to Robinson within 60 day and take a continuing legal education course on ethics.

In response to Northrop’s findings, Alston told the Court of Appeals that Robinson suffered “no harm or prejudice” because the missed court hearing was rescheduled.

“I immediately went to court to try to rectify … the lack of diligence on my part,” said Alston, a Lanham solo practitioner.

She added she had “materially” complied with the diversion agreement.

Court of Appeals Judge Lynne A. Battaglia, who chairs the Maryland Judiciary’s Commission on Professionalism, asked Alston what sanction she believed would be appropriate.

Alston responded she would like another chance to comply fully with the diversion agreement, but Battaglia said, “Other than that.”

The delegate said she had no answer.

During the high court hearing, Alston’s criminal trial was never mentioned directly, but allusions to it pervaded the 45-minute session.

For example, the hearing began at 9 a.m. rather than the Court of Appeals’ usual start time of 10 a.m. to accommodate the trial schedule.

In addition, Alston told the high court she was representing herself at the ethics hearing because her financial resources were limited due to her involvement “in other matters vital to my liberty.”

Thursday afternoon, at the criminal trial, the state rested its case at about 2:30 and the defense moved for acquittal, arguing that the prosecution had presented insufficient evidence as a matter of law to show that Ford had performed no legislative work for Alston.

Anne Arundel County Circuit Court Judge Paul F. Harris Jr. rejected the motion at about 3:45 p.m. and the defense called its first witness, Alston’s law firm accountant and campaign treasurer Sharon Peters Martin. Harris adjourned the trial at 4:30 p.m.

As she left the courtroom, Alston said, “It was a stressful day.”

The trial, which began Tuesday, is scheduled to resume Friday and expected to end Monday. Gordon is a Baltimore solo practitioner and Abdullah is with Raouf M. Abdullah & Associates LLC in Upper Marlboro.

The Court of Appeals did not indicate when it would issue a decision in the ethics case, Attorney Grievance Commission v. Tiffany T. Alston, AG 13 September Term 2011.

Alston’s travails will not end with the conclusion of these current ethical and criminal allegations. She faces an as-yet-unscheduled trial on charges of dipping into her campaign account for personal use, allegedly using $3,560 to cover her wedding expenses in December 2010 and making a $1,250 cash withdrawal.

Grossman, in an additional ethics filing, alleges Alston, 35, failed to be diligent in her representation of and communications with two other clients and failed to respond to inquiries from his office.